BEIRUT — Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on Wednesday urged Syrians to back President Bashar al-Assad while calling for the rejection of sanctions imposed on Damascus over a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
In a televised speech, the head of the powerful Lebanese Shiite militant group also accused US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of dealing the final blow to a 2002 Saudi peace plan.
"We call on all Syrians to preserve their country as well as the ruling regime, a regime of resistance, and to give their leaders a chance to cooperate with all Syria's communities in order to implement the necessary reforms," he said in the speech broadcast by his party's Al-Manar television.
The speech, marking the 11th anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon after a 22-year occupation, was broadcast on a giant screen to thousands of Hezbollah supporters in the village of Nabi Sheet, a Shiite stronghold in the eastern Bekaa Valley.
It was the first time the reclusive Hezbollah chief commented on the protests in Syria, which along with Iran is a major backer of his Shiite militant party.
"The difference between the Arab uprisings and Syria... is that President Assad is convinced that reforms are necessary, unlike Bahrain and other Arab countries," said Nasrallah, who has not appeared in public since 2008.
He also urged his party's supporters to reject sanctions by the United States, European Union and Canada targeting his ally.
"We must refuse these sanctions that the United States and the rest of the West are marketing and trying to convince Lebanon to abide by," said Nasrallah.
Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon under massive international pressure following the 2005 murder of Lebanese former premier Rafiq Hariri, ending 29 years of military and political domination over its smaller neighbour.
But Damascus still influences Lebanese politics through its support for a Hezbollah-led coalition.
Popular protests demanding the end of Baath rule broke out in mid-March, and rights groups estimate more than 1,000 people have been killed as the state cracks down on the pro-democracy protests.
The Shiite leader, Israel's sworn enemy, also slammed Netanyahu for having "fear in his eyes" while speaking of Iran and Hezbollah before US Congress this week.
"These rockets he refers to exist, will always exist, and will protect Lebanon," he warned, referring to tens of thousands of missiles his party is rumoured to have stockpiled. "No one can take them away from us."
Netanyahu said Tuesday Israel had expected peace in exchange for withdrawing from southern Lebanon and Gaza.
"Instead, we got 12,000 rockets fired from those areas on our cities, on our children, by Hezbollah and Hamas," he told congress.
Nasrallah accused Netanyahu and Obama of jointly destroying the 2002 Saudi-led initiative that offers Israel full normalisation of ties in return for its withdrawal from occupied Arab land and the creation of a Palestinian state.
"Obama and Netanyahu have dealt the final, decisive blow to what is called the Arab peace initiative," Nasrallah said. "Is it not time that this initiative be dropped as an option?
"At the very least, the Arab League should pull the initiative as an option," he added. "No to negotiations. No to Israel. No to the occupation of Jerusalem."
Netanyahu has rejected Obama's request that negotiations with Palestinians resume immediately and that he agree to the borders that existed before the 1967 Six Day War to form the basis for the talks.
Nasrallah's Iranian-backed militant group last fought a devastating war with its arch-enemy Israel in 2006.
The month-long conflict killed more than 1,200 Lebanese dead, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mainly soldiers.
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